June 20, 2010


If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily…. – Luke 9: 23

Why was our Lord so sharp with Peter for saying that he was the Christ or the Messiah of God? For starters, it was dangerous: several others had been executed for applying the title to themselves. It was synonymous with sedition. More importantly, it carried with it connotations that Jesus did not want to be associated with, such as a military hero who would deliver God’s people from the Roman yoke. Jesus had to strip the title of false associations in order to focus on its true meaning.

For instance, our Lord’s idea of leadership was service to others, not self-glorification. Further, He linked it inevitably to suffering. Why? Suffering is inevitable because of two unyielding aspects of the human condition. The first is human ego centeredness. In each person there is a drive to serve oneself, to save one’s own life. To move from an ego-centered to an other-centered way of life that denies oneself involves suffering.

The second aspect concerns how other people respond to those who struggle to break the ego-centric mold. Jesus taught & lived compassion for all & reconciliation between divided brothers & sisters. Some people, especially those committed to the status quo of social arrangements, reject this approach. What happened to Martin Luther King, Jr. is a classic example of hostility to this approach. The followers of Jesus will always suffer at the hands of those who curtail compassion & refuse reconciliation.

Why would anyone chose a life that involves such individual self-denial & such social repercussions? The strange answer is that this is the higher life for which people were made. When life is lost on the physical & social level because of the way of Jesus, life is gained on the spiritual level. This is a difficult truth to discern, but once it is, it is a truth that is difficult to ignore. Jesus saw that this call into higher possibilities would always be accompanied by suffering; but He judged the price acceptable.

Contemporary medicine often distinguishes between pain & suffering. Pain is physiological & can be numbed by medications. Suffering is the mental response to pain, an inner distress associated with fear. This too can be addressed with drugs geared to lessen anxiety.

In a conventional sense, pain & suffering is a negative result of our physical & social vulnerability. Something befalls us that is beyond our control – an illness, a job loss, a physical injury, the loss of someone we love, etc. Not wanting ourselves or our loved ones to suffer is a universal human desire. Note: Jesus Himself did not court suffering, but He advocated a larger & nobler view of suffering. Each of us lives on the border of time & eternity.

Our sufferings are what we endure so that Love can enter into the world. We may strive to alleviate, commiserate, & transform the negative suffering that comes from both finitude & sin, but we also sing of the sufferings that are the hidden & strenuous glory of those who choose to love. The love that drove Jesus continued to express itself in the face of the resistance He encountered. His glory was not just resurrection on Easter morning but the sufferings he endured on Good Friday so Love would enter the world. This means taking on things like fear & loneliness & loss & demonstrating that they do not have the last word. This is what gives meaning & purpose to suffering & makes it worth while. AMEN!